Cycling Tokyo

November 2, 2016 at 21:19 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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me-with-bike-in-tokyoAnother up-beat and positive cycling story, but not from Australia. I recently had to visit Japan on business, and due to a quirk of scheduling ended up with some free time in Tokyo – enough free time, in fact, do take a cycling tour of the city.

Tokyo is a city of cyclists. Actually, no, it isn’t. Tokyo is a city of people riding bikes. All sorts of bikes – long ones, tiny ones, ones with kiddie seats, ones with one large and one small wheel, folding bikes, city bikes, electric bikes – the variety is astounding. The only type of bike that is notable by it’s absence is the ‘road’ or racing bicycle. Very few dropped handlebars, even. Also missing is cycling clothing – no lycra in sight. There are bikes locked up to railings and posts all over the city, and endless designated bike parking areas, racks and cages.

My cycling tour was very nice. We covered about 20km at a very leisurely pace; taking in many of the historical and interesting areas of central Tokyo. There were five of us on the tour, and we dutifully followed the guide as he pedalled us from place to place. The bikes themselves were, appropriately enough,  by TokyoBike – an independent Japanese bike brand that I think is both quite trendy and available  in Australia. To be completely honest, they were not actually that comfortable to ride. Rather harsh, with a too-low too-flat handlebar position that led to aching wrists.

footpath-riding-in-tokyoThere are a few remarkable thing about the bicycle culture in Tokyo. The first is the wide variety of people who ride. School kids. Elderly ladies. Mums with kids in seats. Businessmen. Everyone rides. People on bikes represent a cross-section through Japanese society, which is a real sign of a healthy bicycle culture. Another remarkable thing is that so much of that riding is on footpaths. It is perfectly acceptable to ride on the footpath, and the pedestrians and cyclists just seem to get along – the cyclists go slowly, especially when it is busy, and the pedestrians are aware of cyclists and generally move to the side to let them through. There’s a sort of general ‘keep left’ thing, but to be honest it works because people are accommodating of each other, not because of any particular rule enforcement. Cyclists can move between the road and the footpath, taking pedestrian crossings as needed, and it all just works.

But the most interesting part for me is that there is virtually no cycling infrastructure at all. In several hours of riding, I did not see one single bike lane. There were a few half-hearted bike symbols painted on the road here and there, but that was it. It’s really fascinating, and underlines that a healthy, inclusive cycling culture does not require infrastructure – it actually depends on road users being accommodating of each other. Drivers are respectful around cyclists; give them room and are prepared to wait for them, and much like the footpath riding, it just works. It’s very relaxing to cycle in Tokyo, even in traffic.

bike-tourMaybe, on reflection, this isn’t such a positive story after all – it’s hard to not compare this road culture to the aggressive behaviour so often seen on Australia’s roads. However, it was lovely to ride around a bike-friendly city, and perhaps take some heart from the idea that bikes and cars really can get along, even in places where there’s little cycling infrastructure.

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